Not a day goes by where you don't hear a lament in the media about our hyper-sexualized culture. Teen pregnancy rates, the decline in marriage, sexual assault -- they're erroneously linked to everything from pop music tarts to pornography. But the truth is, that despite its seeming prevalence, sex is rarely talked about with any openness or honesty.
That's why Debby Herbenick, a research scientist at Indiana University and sexual health educator at the Kinsey Institute, just launched the site Make Sex Normal. In an email announcing the project, she explains that it's her response to "a pretty tough 2012 election season in which I felt depressingly and repeatedly reminded how little information and comfort there is about sexuality and reproductive health issues." She "kept wondering what to do," she writes. Then she realized that she and all her sex-positive colleagues "have experienced firsthand how quickly sex becomes normal and everyday when we're in a bubble of people who talk about it, who have sex books on their bookshelves, who teach about it, and who talk about it like it's no big deal." She wondered, "If more people engaged in everyday acts of sex-positivity, would change happen more quickly?" With Make Sex Normal, Herbenick is betting on it.
I relate to all that. My work life is littered with promotional sex stuff. (Did I say littered? I meant blessed.) As I type, there's a tube of bacon-flavored lube sitting on my desk, and my laptop sits atop the tome "Guide to Getting It On." Last week I brought home a purple silk robe that read "TROJAN Lubricants." Literally just now a package of "before & after intimate wipes" arrived at the office. Sometimes I have to watch porn at work -- for work. Basically, every day I expose my co-workers to something that in any other setting would require a write-up from H.R. -- and it's awesome! The forbidden becomes prosaic, and it's tremendously freeing. It also totally skews my perspective of what is normal.
Herbenick is hoping to warp your perspective too. She's soliciting photos of people doing things like "teaching a sex-ed class" and "working the phone at an HIV education center." So far, the site features snapshots of folks with vulva puppets, sex toys and even a rainbow-clad llama. I talked to Herbenick by email -- as she waited for a flight at noisy LaGuardia Airport -- about what it means, exactly, to "make sex normal."
Sex is seemingly everywhere in our culture and yet, as your site points out, we rarely ever talk about it openly or honestly. What's that about?
The kind of sex that is often openly discussed is often sensational (e.g., headlines about rape or sex scandals), political (e.g., about DOMA or same-sex marriage) or else it's "sexy" sex, such as in music videos, swimsuit issues or porn. There's little space for the regular, everyday aspects of sex, bodies and reproduction that I think people need to hear and talk more about. For example, issues about sex education, circumcision, vaginal health, talking to a partner about sexual pleasure, desire, orgasm, sexual boredom, monogamy and so on. We don't talk much about sexually transmissible infections outside of headlines about their prevalence among teenagers or older people, but there's a lot of in-between that needs discussion.
Are there any concrete things you'd like to see happen from the site? Any political changes you'd like to see it bring about?
I hope that Make Sex Normal challenges and expands people's ideas about what normal is regarding sex and gender. When I say "make sex normal" I'm talking about making sex, bodies and gender normal, everyday parts of regular conversations. I expect that the photos people submit will cause some to think twice about what's normal in the first place. To paraphrase a line in the movie "Kinsey," the only thing normal about sex is variation. Sex educators, healthcare providers and therapists know this firsthand because we come face to face with diversity all the time.
As for policy, I think we're living in an exciting time of significant political changes, such as the number of people and organizations supporting marriage quality. And while I don't mean to sound ungrateful for that, there's a part of me that's impatient for change, that wants sexual diversity to be celebrated and recognized right now. And it occurred to me recently that we shouldn't have to wait forever. That we can't wait forever. And that if enough of us do our part to at least open up conversations about sex, to make it almost mundane, that at least we might help remove some of the taboos.
Just how sexy are you willing to let the site get? Would you publish, say, an explicit photo from an educational porn shoot?
The submissions so far have not been explicit. I want Make Sex Normal to be a handbook of sorts about how people can make sex normal for themselves and their partners and their family. Everything from how they can talk to their kids about puberty to how they can approach sex with a partner to the fun, amazing things that might challenge them in some way about the very human experience of sex. But we'll see how it goes. Certainly there's a lot that we can learn from the enormous diversity of human bodies and sexual behavior. Right now many of the photos people have submitted are of themselves at Pride parades, wearing sex-positive T-shirts, holding vulva puppets, marching in Slut Walks, teaching human sexuality classes in college or in churches, and holding sex toys.
The people who will be submitting to the site are probably not the folks who most need to see sex normalized. How will you target those folks?
Make Sex Normal is brand-new -- it's been live only for a few days. I started by reaching out to friends and colleagues who, like me, work as sex researchers and educators simply because I knew they'd get the idea and would likely have photos on hand. I'm starting now to reach out to other people to ask them: how do you make sex normal? I can't wait to hear from people who are willing to share the concrete ways they make sex normal in their everyday lives. For example, I'd love to see pictures of age-appropriate sex-positive kids' books with captions like, "I teach my kids accurate information about their bodies" or "I talk to my kids about how babies are made" or "I answer my kids' questions about sexuality." Or maybe pictures of condoms, with captions like "I teach my teenage son or daughter how to protect themselves and their partner." Or pictures of a drawer of sex toys with a caption like "My spouse and I make sex normal by talking about sex -- and making it fun!"
I don't know what to expect. I hope I'm surprised. I hope pictures pour in. I hope people open my eyes to the many ways that they are opening up conversations about sex, gender, puberty, genitals and the many ways of being sexual in this world. That's what this is about -- recognizing the ways people are already making sex normal and showing other people, so they can do it too. It's kind of a "Wizard of Oz" moment: As a society, we've been waiting so long for politicians, school systems and healthcare providers to make sex normal for us when all along we've had the power to do it ourselves. So let's do it already.